Behind the Smoke: It’s What You Don’t See That Kills

Source: By Doug Durante and Larry Pearce, Morning Consult • Posted: Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The tragic reports of fires in the Western states are heart-wrenching and the loss of life and property is staggering. From a public health standpoint, it may be just the beginning as lethal smoke and ash can have long term, debilitating health effects. California Governor Gavin Newsom noted that the impact on human health from the smoke in parts of his state was equivalent to smoking 20 packs of cigarettes a day.

A rightfully alarmed public is responding to what they see with their own eyes — particulates that are so thick they block out the sun. It doesn’t take a scientist or a doctor to know breathing that air is dangerous.

But a bigger problem has existed for decades in the air we don’t see — air polluted with toxic ultra-fine particles, or UFPs.

For more than 30 years, a small group of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulators have hidden a far more lethal pollutant that most Americans have no choice but to breathe in every day. Scientists call them UFPs. Unlike the smoke from forest fires, they are invisible to the human eye — which makes them all too easy to sweep under the rug. But they can be lethal and experts tell us they are a primary causes of pre-term births, childhood asthma, cardiovascular disease and a wide range of cancers.

Ignoring outside scientists and warnings from the medical community is nothing new for EPA. A recent court of appeals decision found that EPA regulators had violated the law for turning a blind eye to poisonous lead contamination the water supplies in Flint, Mich. The bulk of the $600 million settlement has been set aside for children, because they are most affected by lead’s horrific effect on young people’s brains.

This never should have happened. Just like we never should have used poisonous lead in gasoline so many decades ago. While lead’s use in gasoline was finally banned by Congress in the 1990 Clean Air Act — new health threats emerged. In the same law, 69 members of the U.S. Senate voted to require EPA to ensure that another oil-derived octane booster — benzene-based molecules known as BTEX or aromatics which when burned become toxic — were reduced to the “greatest achievable degree…as technologies presented themselves.” Despite the oil industry’s best efforts, Congress reiterated that mandate in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Yet, 30 years later, this mandate continues to be ignored. Today, 25 percent of the 140 billion gallons of gasoline consumed in the United States contains carcinogenic BTEX, even though a less costly octane booster is widely available. There is even evidence suggesting that the EPA has colluded with oil interests to defy congressional intent.

Reporting has also linked the curse of leaded gasoline to high crime rates in our largest cities.

What do all these things have in common? Is it possible to connect the dots? The answer is “yes,” and we can substantially alleviate the problem by employing a timely, cost-effective and environmentally prudent solution.

Last year, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and former Sen. Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.) joined together to shine light on the issue and urge environmental advocates to take another look at biofuels — and more specifically higher blends of ethanol. Even Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem of the Governors’ Biofuels Coalition wrote to the president requesting that he direct the EPA to enforce the toxics controls required in Section 202 of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.

It has been made crystal clear that we cannot wait any longer to act. The science is irrefutable. The solution is commercially available, less costly than the cause of the problem and would benefit all Americans. Ignorance of the law is no excuse.

President Donald Trump was aware that COVID-19 virus was spread through the air months ago, and scientists agree that microscopic aerosols can transport the virus longer than previously thought.

Will our current president continue to turn a blind eye to this deep-seated offense? With a stroke of his pen, he could direct the EPA to follow the law. Without waiting for Congress, our next president could do the same.

Doug Durante is the executive director of the Clean Fuels Development Coalition. Larry Pearce is executive director of the Governors’ Biofuels Coalition.

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.